Capra’s ‘It Happened One Night’ shows his funny side

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That a delightful film.

It’s not often that I get so utterly charmed by a movie these days, especially a romantic comedy, but I guess that’s what happens when you watch a film that helped to pioneer the genre. But so it is with Frank Capra’s screwball romantic comedy, “It Happened One Night,” the first film to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, heiress to a large fortune. Clark Gable plays Pete Warne, a reporter who just got canned from his newspaper.

They meet on a bus bound for New York City as Ellie flees her father who’s just annulled her marriage to “King” Westley, a known fortune hunter. Pete recognizes her and promises to help her make it back to New York to reunite with King.

Needless to say, things don’t go exactly according to plan.

There’s just something breezy and effortless about the rapport between Gable and Colbert as they slowly and haphazardly snake their way from Florida up to New York. Everything here is familiar (and perhaps even worn out) by now. He’s a wiseguy with a fast mouth and street smarts (though he’s not as smart as he thinks). She’s naïve and spoiled. Their personalities constantly clash! Will they eventually fall in love?! (Spoilers: Yes, of course they will.)

Still, although this may have established formula and archetypes, there’s still something special about knowing this was one of the first, and the fact that it’s still better and more spirited and has more personality than most of its imitators. Gable and Colbert have such wonderful chemistry together, so much so that it’s difficult to believe neither of these leads actually wanted to do the film. (The story goes that Gable was on loan from another studio and Colbert was the sixth choice to play the part. She also publicly trashed the movie upon completing filming.)

Capra’s optimism and light touch abounds here. I’m fairly certain that, knowing or not, his work has been a huge influence on the films of Cameron Crowe, as they share a sort of unsinkable heart and tone. Capra bounds from scene to scene, keeping things brisk and peppy. There’s not much depth here, but there’s something to be said for a film that’s this light on its feet.

It’s funny, it’s fun, has plenty of heart and two great central characters that are easy to love and watch. There’s not much more one could ask for from a romantic comedy.

Next week, I’ll continue my series on Capra with a review of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” followed by “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Why We Fight.”

Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.

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